Women, Men React Differently to Loud Sounds, Study Finds

It's well known that women have better high-frequency hearing than men do, as well as a lower threshold of sensitivity. What's loud to most men is louder to most women.

Now a new study indicates that the sexes react differently to sudden loud noises. Women are more easily frightened, but are more tolerant of pain immediately following the noise. Men are more startled than frightened, but become less tolerant of pain.

Those conclusions were reached by researchers at Texas A&M University after exposing 20 men and 20 women to loud sounds such as fire alarms, followed by a painful stimulus. The women tended to describe their reactions as "fear," and demonstrated an increased ability to endure pain, an effect that lasted up to eight minutes after the loud noise. The men tended to describe their reactions as "surprise," but were less capable of tolerating the pain.

"The gender difference might disappear if we increased the intensity of the noise bursts for men. With more intense noise they will probably show the same effect observed in the women. However, our data suggest that women may be more sensitive to noise stress than men," researcher Dr. Mary W. Meagher told Reuters Health. Dr. Meager, a psychologist, and her colleague, Dr. Jamie Rhudy, published their study in the February 2001 issue of The Journal of Pain.

Meager and Rhudy's experiment validates thousands of anecdotal observations made by audio professionals in demonstrating home theater and home audio systems. Women typically are less comfortable with sound pressure levels acceptable to men. "We can't say, on the basis of this study, that men and women have different reactions to noise as a stressor, but it suggests that women have a lower threshold to experience noise as stressful," Meagher explained. She hypothesized that reactions to noise and pain as observed in her female subjects may have served some evolutionary purpose: "During a life-threatening situation, feeling pain would get in the way of survival, so the body reacts by shutting off the pain response."

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